Approval, authority and space

In any other context, it would almost feel blasphemous to be writing about my grandfather. But this is not blasphemy because it is not slander. There has been enough talk about my grandfather and how good he was. Because he was. He was good. In certain ways, he was most present and interested in my growth as a child, academically and perhaps even developmentally ie. in providing the structure a child needs while growing up.

But in the larger context of my family, and that subliminal space between what is known and unknown, there is so much that is unsaid in an evident manner but acknowledged and even accepted with the slant of the eye; that’s just the way he is. Domination and patriarchy were very evident. He had to put my grandmother down (for very ridiculous things, I now feel) and I have heard hints of domestic violence. But apart from odd instances here and there, I don’t think I ever saw him in an objective manner, he was always my grandfather.

So, yes, there’s all that. And all of that generational trauma has carried over and trickled down to me and my cousins. But funnily enough, that’s not even what I’m addressing now.

This is my maternal grandfather, he was a headmaster and a hindi pandit. He made his own legacy. He probably sowed a lot of foundational seeds for my mother and her siblings. Gave them a solid base, taught them discipline and hard work. But, dear God, the man was authoritative and…demanded perfection and doled out rejection like it was nothing. I might even say, he manipulated via rejection, withdrawal and dismissal. My only experience of this has been as a child, because by the time I was an adolescent, I had taken all the rejection (from him and others) and had turned into a disgruntled teen — nothing I say or do is right and nothing I ever do is good enough for you, so I give up.

What I’m trying to address here has been a very recent realization. In my journey with counselling and therapy, this did not come up. It started coming into my awareness about a year ago. The first glimpse of it was when I was participating in a hypnotherapy workshop and during the hypnosis, accessed this fire within — for expression, dance, the arts, the ilk. That wasn’t really surprising, because it’s there and it’s always been there. But the range of it — the depth and veracity of it caught me by surprise. I came out of that workshop with so much energy, wanting to dance! My grandfather didn’t really pop in then, but that anecdote adds up to the story I’m weaving.

Earlier this year, while I was preparing for my psychology entrance exam, I was reading developmental psychology. I think I was reading Erik Eriksen’s theory of psychosocial development — and it was such an automatic trigger, distinct flashes of incidents were coming up in my mind, what seemed like a trickle of anger was flowing through my veins. What was popping up in my head was, weirdly, incidents from when I was quite small, possibly when I was spending summers at my grandparents’ place. And my system was slowly filling up with anger, because something someone so nonchalantly or habitually did was enough to affect who you are and how you function in the world, enough for it to be written in a textbook, as a concept.

He was critical in general, and had this whole perfectionism angle that may have come from a well intentioned place. I was very interested in dance and I think I did a lot of dancing around, imitating bharatanatyam and I honestly don’t know what else. When I was 3 or 4 years old my grandfather was very encouraging and appreciative of it. But as I got older, it became more instructional, correctional and critical. Over time, the message I was getting was that “it”, which translates to “I” when you’re a child, wasn’t good enough.

There was a clear lack of positive reinforcement, as in there was a lot of silence from other sources and then, from him- this was the message. I think that part of me eventually just withdrew altogether.

The death of little joys and the pressure of things that may never come to be.

I don’t think there was ever a situation where I was afraid of something going wrong on a stage. But my grandfather had this habit of making us (me and my cousins eventually) put on impromptu performances and his criticality just took the fun out of it. Dance and expression was something that came naturally and there was so much joy in just doing. But the constant messaging of “this is not right, this is how you should do it, you shouldn’t do this or that” got so stifling.

This was the specific scenario for me, but there were so many instances of subliminal messaging of “this is the correct way of doing things”. The one and only right way that needs to be followed. My mom and her siblings have similar attitudes — there is only one right way and that is the only way something should be done. What happens here is that you’re so busy correcting your kids that you’re cutting off their opportunity to explore and make their own choices. If you remove the specifics of the scenario, what’s essentially happening is that kids are learning how to be independent, make choices, figure out whether they like it or not and choose to repeat or change the behaviour based on the consequence and how the consequence affects them.

Instead what happens is that there is either correction or a withdrawal of approval. For me, there has been a distinct lack of support — you do it my way or your way. It’s either forgo your needs or I’ll forgo mine, withdraw myself from the situation and you’re left on your own to deal with the consequences of your actions. Where do kids gain confidence from when their primary caregivers are dangling carrots like this?

I don’t quite know why this came up so strongly today. But here’s the thing, there’s a mini collective consciousness to this behaviour. My mom and her siblings support and reinforce each other. They have their support system there. What about mine? If certain parts of your thought processes exist on the basis of denying what I feel or putting mine down, what am I to do?

There are casual remarks that are made in passing but are nonetheless gossipy or negative or hurtful. And in the family, I don’t have the space to have a conversation about it. I realise that my communication is stunted, at least with respect to this. In my communication with my parents I seem to be only able to say things that are accepted in the family — because saying anything otherwise meant I was in the wrong. But as an adult I can say it now, still not to them though, because some child like part of myself yearns for parental approval. I’ve let go of that need for approval and acceptance… but I think I’m past that space where I cut off parts of myself to fit in to spaces.